"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Greek Slave

This 1846 marble sculpture of the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers stands in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
The Greek Slave, the first publicly exhibited, life-size, American sculpture depicting a fully nude female figure, met with unprecedented popular and critical success. Arguably the most famous American sculpture ever, The Greek Slave not only won American expatriate Hiram Powers international acclaim but also enhanced the overseas reputation of American art and culture. After completing his first Greek Slave in 1844 (Raby Castle, England), Powers produced five full-size versions (also in marble), each slightly different. William Wilson Corcoran purchased this sculpture, the first of those, in 1851.

The event that established The Greek Slave as one of America's most celebrated works of art was the 1847–1851 tour of two versions of the sculpture, including Mr. Corcoran's, around the eastern United States. Aware that the slave's nudity might provoke disapproval on the part of a conservative American audience, Powers was careful to supplement his exhibition with texts stressing the subject's ‘high moral and intellectual beauty.' In fact, the figure's nudity increased its notoriety, but the work's acclaim in the mid-19th-century United States stemmed also from its relationship to contemporary political events. Powers chose a subject inspired by Greece's struggle for independence in the 1820s; many literary, artistic, and critical responses to the sculpture linked it to the ongoing debate over American slavery.
Corcoran displayed the prized sculpture prominently in his Washington mansion, where it attracted enormous publicity and confirmed his reputation as a discerning collector. In Florence, Powers was overwhelmed by the demand for more full-size versions and busts. The sculpture's renown also permeated popular culture, inspiring everything from miniature reproductions and chewing-tobacco tins to poetry and sheet music.
The cross and cross decorated lockett hung on the column advance the story the subject is a Christian woman stripped and enslaved by the Turks.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this sonnet about Powers' statue, linking Ottoman slavery with slavery in America.
Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave
They say Ideal beauty cannot enter
The house of anguish. On the threshold stands
An alien Image with enshackled hands,
Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her
(That passionless perfection which he lent her,
Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)
To so confront man's crimes in different lands
With man's ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,
Art's fiery finger, and break up ere long
The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,
From God's pure heights of beauty against man's wrong!
Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.
For an exegesis of this poem see Caroline Levine, 2013.

Punch made the same connection with this  cartoon by John Tenniel in Volume 20, 1851.

The Virginian Slave.
Intended as a companion to Power's “The Greek Slave”

H. Powers, Sc. 

Powers didn't carve the sculptures himself. He produced a clay model from which a plaster point-model was cast .  Using a divider-like tool, called  a pointing machine, workmen in Powers' studio copied the locations of import points on the model marked by metal studs and transferred the locations to the sculpture being carved.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, has the original 1843 pointed plaster model of Powers' Greek Slave on display in the Luce Center.  The photo below shows the plaster model and an x-ray of it exposing the armature that supports it.

Karen Lemmey describes it this way.
This plaster cast is as close as we can get to Powers’ “original” Greek Slave. It was made in the artist’s studio directly from Powers’ clay model and records the date “March 12, 1843,” when the sculptor proclaimed he finished modeling his masterpiece in clay. Powers carefully sculpted the body but did minimal work on the locket, cross, and drapery, since it was more efficient to refer to real examples of these objects when carving these elements in marble. Similarly, Powers did not lose time modeling the chains that were so important to the sculpture’s narrative. Instead, he attached real metal chains, which scraped into the plaster figure’s right thigh.

This plaster was the reference prototype for several of the full-scale marble replicas of the Greek Slave. Between 1844 and 1869, professional carvers working under Powers’ direction mechanically reproduced six full-scale marble replicas of the Greek Slave for private patrons. Each one is nearly identical to this plaster except for variations in the drapery, chains, and other details and each one is considered to be an original work of art. The carvers used a pointing machine, similar to the one displayed in this exhibition, to precisely measure the location of metal studs and graphite “x” marks that appear on the surface of this plaster and transfer these registration marks to corresponding locations on the block of marble being carved. 

A 3-D scan of the plaster model recently created by the Smithsonian can be seen here.

The 3-D scan has been used to create a polymer and glass 3-D printed version of the statue which is on display in the Octagon Room in the Renwick Gallery. The Octagon Room was orginally intended by Renwick to house Corcoran's favorite Sculpture, The Greek Slave.

3-D printed Greek Slave statue in the Octagon Room.

3-D Printed Greek Slave.

3-D printed Greek Slave

Since the 3-D printed version is based on the plaster model it retains the ring used to support the pointing machine, and the point marks. 

The Smithsonian American Art Museum displays a 3/4 sized version of Power's Greek Slave.

Notice that a different type of chain appears in this version of the statue. Various details left off the plaster model could vary from statue to statue. Later models have these bar shackles which some suggest point the story toward American slavery.

In addition to W.W. Corcoran's Greek Slave the National Gallery has a bust of the Greek Slave  by Hiram Powers. It stands by the door to the gift shop.

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